2006 Mercedes-Benz ML350
2006 Mercedes-Benz ML350. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Grant Yoxon

Toronto, Ontario – People who communicate – marketers, advertisers and political spin doctors, for example – are familiar with the expression ‘perception is reality.’

Consumers base their decision to buy on the perception that they are getting what they are paying for. Voters decide to vote for a political party based on their perception that the party will deliver what it promises if elected.

How often have we found that our perceptions did not meet reality once the party formed the government? And how often has a product failed to live up to its promises?

Sport utility vehicles have become immensely popular over the last 15 years. Ask buyers why they want a to drive an SUV and they will tell you that they want the protection offered by a large vehicle, the safety of all-wheel-drive, the added security of a commanding driving position, and versatility for carrying cargo and passengers.

Browse through the crash test and roll-over ratings of SUVs at the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and you will see how often perception and reality deviate.

Buyers will also tell you that they want a vehicle that reflects their active outdoors-oriented lifestyle. Here perception may diverge even more significantly from reality.

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML500

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML500
2006 Mercedes-Benz ML500. Click image to enlarge

So it is refreshing to find an SUV that in reality will meet the expectations of buyers for safety and security.

And one that might match your self-image whether you perceive yourself to be the outdoors type or if you’ve come to terms with the reality of your sedentary lifestyle.

Mercedes-Benz has just released the latest version of its M-Class SUV – the 2006 ML350 and ML500 and it can be said, without hesitation, that perception really is reality. The new M-Class will meet consumer expectations for safety and refinement. And it will also go wherever your active lifestyle dictates, if in fact, that too is your reality.

This is the first complete re-design of the M-Class that was first introduced in 1997 as a 1998 model. That year, the M-Class was named Car of the Year by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, as well as North American Truck of the Year.

What the journalists and consumers liked about the 1998 M-Class was its almost unique combination of rugged off-road capability and passenger car refinement and security. This has not changed for 2006. If anything, the M-class is even more capable and more car-like.

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML500

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML500

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML500
2006 Mercedes-Benz ML500. Click image to enlarge

The 2006 version of the M-Class has few compromises. It may well be the most sedan-like SUV available in Canada today. And properly equipped, it has the capability to match all but the most purpose-built off-road vehicles.

The quest to eliminate compromise started with a completely new unibody frame and chassis and the liberal use of high strength steel. The body is extremely rigid. Over even the roughest road, not a squeak or rattle can be heard. Even perched on two wheels, a situation that would have most vehicles bending in two, the ML’s doors and hatch can be opened and closed without problem.

Most M-Class buyers won’t find themselves in this kind of situation, but a rigid body has noticeable benefits for everyday driving. It contributes to superior on-road refinement, a quiet interior and a much safer vehicle.

Also contributing to ride comfort is a wheelbase that has grown by 93 mm (3.7 in.). Larger dimensions increase interior space. The new M-Class is about 150 mm (6 in.) longer, nearly 71 mm (2,8 in.) wider and about 6 mm (.2 in) lower than the first generation M-Class.

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML500
2006 Mercedes-Benz ML500. Click image to enlarge

The distance between the front and rear seat has increased by more than 15 mm (.5 in.), while knee room (35 mm/1.4 in.) and elbow room (1.3 in.) have also grown. Front leg room has also been expanded by 50 mm (2.0 in.).

The rear seats are configured 60/40 and folded allow up to 2,050 litres (72.4 cu. ft.) of cargo space. The M-Class can be ordered with a power liftgate and an optional cargo organizer, but not a third row passenger seat. This is strictly a 5-passenger SUV. No third row is contemplated.

Interior materials, and fit and finish, will meet consumer expectations for Mercedes-Benz’ reputation for quality. Cloth seating and aluminum trim are standard, with leather seats and wood trim optional.

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML500

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML500

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML500

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML500
2006 Mercedes-Benz ML500. Gear selector photo: Mercedes-Benz. Click image to enlarge

It is a completely new interior design with four-spoke multi-function steering wheel, large bright gauges housed in tubular binnacles, a generous centre console with integrated grab handles and room for two extra large Timmies, and a column mounted gear selector.

It may sound like a backward step, but mounting the gear selector – in reality a simple electric switch (up for Forward, down for Reverse and press for Park) – back on the steering column frees up lots of room for storage on the console.

The gear selector connects to a 7-speed automatic transmission – a first for SUVs. Mercedes-Benz says the new seven speed “makes the SUV both faster and more economical while providing smooth, barely noticeable shifts.” It’s not just marketing. In reality you will not notice the transmission shifting through the gears unless you shift it manually with the shift buttons on the back of the steering wheel.

Two engines are available, a completely new 3.5-litre V6 and a 5.0-litre V8 held over from the previous generation, but much more refined.

The twin-cam V6 – derived from the 2005 SLK350 – produces 268 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque, with maximum torque available from 2,400 rpm to 5,000 rpm. Nearly 90 per cent of torque is available at a low 1,500 rpm. As a result the new V6 moves the 2,135 kg (4,707 lbs.) SUV smartly from a standing start or throughout the mid-range – excellent for passing. The zero to 100 km/h time is estimated to be 8.6 seconds. Natural Resources Canada’s estimated fuel consumption for this engine is 14.6 litres/100 km (19.3 mpg) in the city and 10.6 litres/100 km 26.6 mpg) on the highway.

It makes one wonder why a V8 is necessary – probably to meet consumer perceptions that a luxury SUV should be more powerful than other SUVs. If that’s your perception, you can opt for the ML500 and its 302 hp 5.0-litre, three-valve per cylinder V8. Torque is higher – 339 ft-lb – but the torque band is not as broad as the V6 – ranging from 2,700 to 4,750 rpm. Estimated acceleration times increase to 7.2 seconds for the zero to 100 km/h sprint, as does fuel consumption – 16.8 litres per 100 km (16.8 mpg) in the city and 11.6 litres per 100 km on the highway (24.4 mpg).

It should be noted that the M-Class with either engine is rated by the California Air Resources Board as a super ultra-low emission vehicle.

Obviously, I’m a bit partial toward the V6. It is a wonderful engine, strong for a small power-plant, a smooth and quiet running motor with the added benefit of reasonable fuel consumption. But the V8 is there for those who feel they need it. And for those for whom there is never enough power, there will be the ML63 AMG with 6.3-litre V8 coming in 2007. An AMG appearance package will be available later in the 2006 model year.

What about a diesel? The news is good. An ML320 CDI with 3.2 litre diesel engine will reach Canada later in the 2006 model year. The engine produces 201 hp and 369 ft-lb. of torque and will have an estimated combined city/highway fuel consumption rating of 9.4 litres per 100 km (30 mpg).

As mentioned earlier, the new ML has a super-stiff chassis, thanks to its new uni-body construction. And buyers looking for a competent all-weather vehicle will be pleased with the ML’s on road manners. It is extremely smooth and comfortable for an SUV.

2006 Mercedes-Benz M-class

2006 Mercedes-Benz M-class

2006 Mercedes-Benz M-class

2006 Mercedes-Benz M-class
Click image to enlarge

But the adventurous will not be disappointed. With full time four-wheel-drive, Downhill Speed Regulation (essentially low speed cruise control) and hill holder start-off assist, the ML350 and ML500 proved to be quite capable in the rough going as we experienced during off-road trials organized by Mercedes-Benz Canada.

The four-wheel-drive system in the Mercedes-Benz M-Class is a full-time four-wheel adaptation of Mercedes’ electronic traction control. The system senses wheel slip electronically and brakes the slipping wheels, which transfers torque to those tires with the most grip, on virtually any road surface. Even when three wheels are slipping, all available torque can be transferred to one wheel. Normal torque distribution is 50/50 front to rear.

Hard core off-roaders have not been forgotten as Mercedes-Benz will make available later this year an optional off-road package which features a two-speed electronically controlled transfer case. High range provides 1:1 on-road gearing, while selecting “low” at the press of a button engages a 2.93:1 ratio. The off-road package will also include electronically controlled centre and rear differential locks.

Also enhancing its off-road capability – as well as on-road drive-ability – is the M-class’s optional air suspension system, which employs air bladders instead of coil springs. This $4,995 option automatically lowers ride height 15 mm (0.6 in.) for improved handling and stability at speeds over 120 km/h. For off-road ventures, the suspension can be raised, using a dash mounted switch, as much as 80 mm (3.15 in.), providing a ground clearance of 261 mm (10.3 in.).

The air suspension also includes an adaptive damping system that can change compression and rebound damping in response to changing road conditions. The suspension can be locked into a “sport” mode for a firmer setting or a “comfort” mode, or left to adjust itself automatically.

The rest of the four-wheel independent suspension consists of a double wishbone front suspension with coil springs, gas shocks and stabilizer bar. The rear suspension is a four-link set-up.

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML350

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML350
2006 Mercedes-Benz ML350. Click image to enlarge

A strong body has obvious benefits off-road, but it also enhances occupant safety. While the front and rear of the new M-Class are designed to deform and absorb crash energy, a super-strong passenger cell protects occupants by maintaining survival space. The 2006 M-Class has standard two-stage adaptive front airbags, curtain side airbags and roll-over sensor. Active safety features include anti-lock brakes, all-speed traction control, electronic stability program, brake assist and tire pressure monitoring system.

Most consumers aren’t looking for an off-road experience when they purchase an SUV. They have the perception that an SUV will provide enhanced safety and the flexibility to carry cargo and passengers. They want the toughness of a truck, but the ride and comfort of a car. And they want a vehicle that will look good in their driveway.

The 2006 M-Class will not disappoint on any of these perceptions because with the M-Class perception is reality.

The new M-Class is on sale now. Starting prices range from $55,750 for the ML350 with cloth seating to $75,300 for the ML500 with appearance package. For more information visit Mercedes-Benz Canada.

See also: 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350, Test Drive, by Greg Wilson

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